Contemplatives are learning to control paying attention. We are explicitly working with the plasticity of the nervous system by training over long periods of time. This dedication to the practice takes a certain backbone if the effort is going to be sustained. It is particularly the case for Westerners since we lack an appreciation for the value of altered states of mind.
It takes backbone to believe in the value of altered states. In the West aside from the mystical traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam the only other widespread recognition that the experiences of the human mind include powerful altered states is found in psychiatry and the underground drug culture. This inner-world poverty might be the single largest difference between Eastern and Western cultures. Where Hinduism and Buddhism have molded people’s sensibilities it is common knowledge that the human mind has access to states that are out of the ordinary.
It could well be that this is relevant to our ecological crisis as well. No reverence for the inside has lead to no reverence for the outside.
In the trainings of our various practices we become familiar with an overflowing of compassion for all beings along side the insights into the nature of our interdependent reality. An inner space is slowly built up and a willingness to let go into emptiness (not nothingness!) is strengthened. Unlike the typical results of drug use, this program of practice is explicitly aiming to enrich the rest of our day to day encounters and everyday consciousness with an unassailable sense of peace, gratitude and joy. It is not how high you can go that determines your skill but like a shaman, it is how effective you can be in bringing back a boon for your community of beings that really matters.
Virtue is our guide until we leave the shores of duality. Nurturing our desire for good, for ourselves and others, is the path. Not a virtue rooted in fixed commandments backed up by threats but a moment by moment appraisal of what is the most wholesome choice – sometimes that choice is full of mischievousness.
Our colloquial ‘they have real backbone’ captures something about the need for practitioners to develop character. Talking about the development of character might sound like that old fashion quality of a more innocent time when men wanted to be gentlemen and woman wanted to be ladies. No doubt some readers are rolling their eyes with visions of Victorian morals and hypocrisy dancing in their heads. Character is the summation of choices made over a lifetime. Are you considered dependable or do you change with every breeze? Would people describe you as honest or shifty? A source of safety or danger? Do you celebrate the good whenever possible or bemoan the bad endlessly? These are the types of things that color your way of being in the world. They are the result of how you have chosen to use your nervous system over the many years of your life.
Character is also one of those targets the mass media has reshaped and continually redefines as uncool. After all, those people that take seriously a set of values other than consumerism’s offerings are the stated enemy of the advertising industry. It is not a coincidence that for the most part in the media all fathers are buffoons, all the elderly cute, harmless and clueless, while all the real action is always taking place among the teenagers and young adults. City folk are better than country folk, just as the rich are better than the poor and the CEO is almost god compared to his minions… the whole list of stereotypes is long, well known and as pervasive as the air you breathe. Individuation takes work as only serious contemplations can stand against these headwinds.
The skillful use of awareness involves much more than just thinking the right thoughts. It is a uniquely monotheistic trait to care more about whether or not someone holds to the correct dogma than whether or not they act in an upright manner. On the other hand contemplatives by their practice are declaring that just being a decent human being is not sufficient in itself to allow for living the good life. They are willing to forgo second hand reports and hand-me down salvations for the quest into the depths of being.
That quest has been a major preoccupation for most of humanity for most of its long, long tenure on this planet. The sterility of current Western traditions is an exception. Carl Jung was among the most articulate in pointing out that there are numerous similarities across time and cultures when it comes to the symbols and messages involved in the dreams and rituals of our species. The Australian aborigines and the Hasidic Kabbalist join the yogis and yoginis, for example, in recognizing sacred trees, mandalas, alchemical operations, sacred unions and many, many other of the motifs of mythology and fairy tales.
It is not hard to understand that many of these shared symbolisms arise because part of their source is the structure of the human body which is shared across the cultures and the aeons. One of the perennial symbolisms obviously rooted in body awareness is the set of chakras or energy centers that are located along the spinal column. Dogmatists will insist the Hindu map differs from the Buddhist and both differ from the Kabbalist yet they would be missing the more relevant point; they all recognize that the human body includes a number of functional areas aligned along the spine.
Modern science has dubbed the stomach ‘a second brain‘ in recognition that it includes a collection of nerve tissues second only to the brain itself. We all know how our stomach can become queasy or, as we say, get butterflies. Sometimes we will lose our appetites and other times eat more than we should. A good, hard cry is accompanied by a heaving and hollowness in the stomach region. Of course people did not need science to tell them that there is a second brain center in our bodies, after all, we have been saying we have a gut instinct or that our gut tells us this or that for a very long time.
The stomach is a good second brain to discuss in polite company but it is worth mentioning that a bit lower on the body there is another area people often say seems to have a mind of its own as well.
What the chakra map is indicating, to those who are exposed to it, is that there are other awareness centers of the human body in addition to the stomach and sexual regions. Our physiology is constructed around a tube that runs from mouth to anus. Each of these places where the external and internal worlds meet is an additional chakra. The region of the beating heart and oscillating lungs is another. Looking at the human skull we find that four of the five senses are located there, not to mention the brain, which makes it another natural nexus.
The tube we are: our gender parts are tubes, reflecting the alimentary canal / intestinal tube the overall body plan uses. The spine’s central column is the tube most intimately related to the workings of the nervous system and so consciousness or awareness. One form of yoga talks about the Kundalini as a force that arises from the root chakra to enter the spinal column and rise to the brain during the moment of enlightenment or samadhi. It is not hard to see how the reptilian brain’s lust is here being lifted to the centers where self-awareness can occur. When the shadowy roots of our psyche within its physiological matrix become illuminated all the tubes are made transparent in a clear light. Tradition refers to this as omniscience, illumination, and big ‘E’ Enlightenment.
Why all this attention to the spine? Introspection and dissection reveal that the carrier of awareness, the nervous system, runs its whole length. From each vertebrae a pair of nerve tissues protrude from the right and left hand sides. In each of those there is a front nerve cord and a back nerve cord. The front cord processes sensory signals, it is the input channel whereas the back cord process motor signals as the output channel. These pairs of nerve cords extend from each vertebrae to specific targets throughout the whole body. There is not a part of the body that is not included within this net of communications where signals to and from the brain and central nervous system are endlessly being exchanged.
The yogas move awareness from isolation in the head’s abstractions and thought-whirling down into the sensory gates and physiological sense. Ultimately there is a bliss available to the trained; basically there is an orgasm of the organs and an orgasm of the mind which reflects them. Just as in love making the barrier between the lovers dissolves and becomes permeable so in the non-dual states the boundaries dissolve between inside and outside, sacred and profane, high and low, light and dark and all the other tools of the conceptual mind.
These maps, the yogic chakras and the scientific neurophysiology, are exploring the territory that is literally our vehicle for navigating time and space. Consciousness permeates the vehicle which provides a ladder or set of nested emergences structuring potential states of mind. DNA dreams and equations, comedy and poetry, quiet contemplations and ecstatic shivers – it’s all within reach. It is said all of us will know all of it, that eventually each of us will experience all that there is to be experienced of life’s essential nature just through the processes of being born, living and dying.
It is also said that it is the altruistic that is unsurpassable. This role of compassion and the aspiration for all sentient beings to enjoy happiness is much more than just a sweet sentiment. It is a powerful factor within the realms of consciousness, it is said to be the opener of the gates and the summum bonum of personal evolution. Science has just started to look at its effects on the nervous systems of contemplative practitioners. We are now in a position to begin to appreciate the results.
One of my tradition’s Dohas or teaching songs states:
“All awareness, is awareness emptiness
far beyond, what thoughts can know…”
The ego is threatened by non-conceptual awarenesses. It not at its beck and call but the truth is that the mind and the other nervous system nexuses are not cut off from one another and we are so much more than just the ego. The sexual center, like the emotional center of the gut, the wisdom center of the heart and lung regions and the creative expressions of the throat center are all integrated within the “mind’s” awareness. The contemplative path includes the element of the correct view which concerns itself with conceptual thoughts (i.e. interdependent origination) yet the path reaches beyond what conceptual mind alone can ever know. This is not as mysterious as it might at first sound. Another line from the same Doha:
“Every feeling is bliss and emptiness
Far beyond what words can show…”
It is hard to understand how every feeling is bliss. But isn’t it true that every feeling is far beyond what words can show? The contemplative is training to first be comfortable with this fact and then to grow ever more skillful in living with it.